Airbnb Goes Emo With Its Rebranding Love Storyby
Airbnb had some news about itself to share, so the startup staged a Manhattan dinner party. Last week, one of the driving forces in the so-called sharing economy brought a few journalists together inside one of the apartments—a three-bedroom Tribeca loft owned by an architect and sublet for $895 a night—listed in its marketplace for short-term accommodations. Joe Gebbia, one of Airbnb’s co-founders, told us it was time to change the company’s look.
Since its launch in 2008, Gebbia explained, Airbnb has grown so quickly that formal branding has been sidelined—an afterthought at best. Now, with 600,000 listings in 190 countries and a $10 billion valuation, it was time to drop the old logo written in bubbly script and stake claim to a symbol as iconic as the Nike swoosh. Airbnb would re-brand to look more like the company it had become.
Gebbia prefaced the unveiling with a “pretty remarkable story.” Projected on the screen in front of us was a picture of a young man smiling against a wall pinned with artwork. This was Clarence, a young man who had been so relentlessly bullied while in design school that he temporarily dropped out to travel abroad. He booked a trip to Europe and rented places to stay on Airbnb.
“People were really picking on him in a way that he had to leave the country,” Gebbia said. Clarence’s hosts, unlike his college roommate and fellow students, welcomed him with open arms—an experience that had a profound impact on the lone traveler. “He came back home a much more confident individual,” Gebbia said.
The poignant narrative is something New Yorkers in particular have come to expect from Airbnb, which is waging a fierce political battle to operate in the city, the company’s largest market. To persevere in New York, Airbnb has to amend a law barring short-term sublets that was passed in 2010 to protect permanent residents from the potential dangers of transient visitors. Airbnb’s efforts include paying $120,000 to a lobbying firm to gin up support in Albany, hiring a politically connected public-relations firm to hone its message, and spending $176,000 on advertising in the local New York market last year. Those ads, appearing on television and inside subway trains, feature moving stories from Airbnb hosts who would be priced out of their homes without the income they generate by subletting their apartments.
Airbnb’s re-branding effort, however, has drawn its inspiration from the guests, not the hosts. Design Studio, a London-based firm, won the commission by turning half of its own office into an Airbnb listing. After securing the job, it dispatched four people from its team to stay with hosts in 30 cities over the course of a single week. The in-field research—stories and video footage—generated thousands of possible marks. At a certain point, as Gebbia tells it, the conversation circled back to Clarence: “It was around this moment when we pulled together this thread: No matter where you were on Airbnb globally, the one thing that’s consistent is belonging.”
From there, the company and its image maker broke their definition of belonging into four parts—people, places, love, and Airbnb—and synthesized them into a symbol that looks at once like a person’s head and upstretched arms, a location marker, an upside-down heart, and the letter “A.” The company lays out its message in a statement:
“Belonging is the idea that defines Airbnb, but the way we’ve represented Airbnb to the world until now hasn’t fully captured this. So to represent that feeling, we’ve created a new marque for Airbnb inspired by our community. It’s an iconic marque for our windows, our doors, and our shared values.”
To the cynical, love may seem an inappropriately emotional term to describe a transaction that is based on financial benefits and a high level of trust. Guests get to stay somewhere at a fraction of what a hotel would charge and then get help navigating a foreign place from their local hosts. Renters derive income from subletting their homes. It may be personally enriching for one or both parties, but love factors into the equation as much as it does in the alleged and highly-publicized orgy that took place in a New York Airbnb listing earlier this year.
Regardless of the lingo behind it, the logo being released to the world on Wednesday works. It’s playful, unpretentious, and looks good in big and small scales, in digital and print formats, and as a three-dimensional object. Gebbia says the company did some “very serious semiotics work” to see how the logo plays across the cultures in every country except North Korea, Iraq, Iran, and Cuba. The response was “resoundingly positive.”
Along with the marque launch, Airbnb has subtly refreshed its website. The formerly static homepage image is now a video, and there’s greater emphasis on photography of listings and respective hosts across mobile and Web platforms. “It’s about bringing the people to the forefront and making sure imagery is telling that story,” says Katie Dill, the company’s head of experience design. The feel is uncluttered, with more white space and easier-to-read type.
In keeping with its sharing ethos, the company lets users customize the logo through a new site feature called Create Airbnb. “We hand this marque over to the community,” Gebbia said. “They can go through millions of permutations and create their own symbol. You’d never see this with the Nike swoosh.”